Sowing Success

Direct seeding colorful annuals is easy and economical.

A fistful of dry, lifeless-looking seeds is tossed into the air and softly lands in the loosened soil. Rain falls, and the droplets bathe the seeds. The husks crack open, and green seedlings emerge. In a matter of weeks, beautiful blossoms appear and cover the once-barren garden. This process, known as direct seeding, is as simple as it sounds if you just follow these steps to success.

Choose the Right Spot
Most of the reseeding annuals, such as bachelor's buttons, cosmos, cleomes, sunflowers, tithonias, and zinnias, need at least six hours of sun--so you'll need a bright, level spot. Slopes can be seeded, but you'll likely have to deal with washing during heavy rains. You should also be within a hose length of a water source, because you can't always count on Mother Nature to supply needed rain.

Prepare the Soil
Start with a weed-free site. You can use a non-selective herbicide to kill any unwanted plants. The soil should be loose, fertile, and well drained--throwing seeds out on rock-hard ground will provide little success. Any seedlings that do sprout will be stunted, because their roots cannot move through the compacted soil. If your soil is poor, add plenty of organic matter such as leaf mold, peat, finely shredded bark, or mushroom compost. Use a tiller to turn the soil 4 to 6 inches deep. Rake the area smooth, and remove any tree roots or rocks. If this sounds like too much work or you don't have space in your yard, sow seeds in containers to add color to your deck or patio. Potting soil is the best choice for use in large containers.

Putting Out Seed
In small areas, you can scatter seeds by hand. In large areas or meadows, you may need a seed distributor or a small handheld spreader. Be sure to save some extra seeds so you can go back and fill in bare spots.

Water and Feed
If there is no rain in the forecast, use a water wand with a fine-mist setting to settle seeds into the ground. During germination, keep the area evenly moist. Once the seedlings are visible, feed with a water-soluble 20-20-20 fertilizer at half strength. After the first true leaves appear, begin feeding with a full-strength solution once a month. Thin out seedlings and transplants according to the seed pack's spacing directions. Plants that are too close together will grow spindly and weak.

Bounty of Blooms
Flowers should appear in 6 to 10 weeks. As blooms fade, remove the spent flowers. This will allow plants to continue to bloom instead of using their energy to produce seed. Clip flowers, and create fresh summertime arrangements.

 

Easy Seeders

  • Bachelor's button or cornflower (Centaurea cyanus)--Blue, pink, rose-red, and white blooms top silvery, gray-green 12- to 30-inch foliage. These long-stemmed favorites make wonderful cut flowers. Their blooms can also be dried. They prefer rich, moist soil but will tolerate both drought and poor soil. Most of the seed comes in mixed colors. 'Blue Boy' is one solid colored selection that has powder-blue flowers and grows about 2 ½ feet tall.
  • Cleome or spider flower (Cleome spinosa)--This underused annual can grow up to 5 feet, depending on selection. The flowers are pink, lavender, and white, with long whisker-like stamens that resemble spider legs. The unusual blooms, which attract butterflies, look great on the back side of a border. Cleome is a reseeding annual that will come back year after year. 'White Queen,' 'Cherry Queen,' and 'Violet Queen' are dependable selections.
  • Cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus)--This carefree annual boasts charming blooms in two dazzling color ranges: pastel pink, rose, and white; and radiant yellow, orange, and tomato red. They grow 2 to 5 feet tall, depending on selection, and work well in flowerbeds, butterfly gardens, and containers. They're tolerant of dry conditions. Sonata Hybrid is a popular mix of rose, pink, and cherry flowers that grows around 20 inches. Bright Lights Hybrid grows 3 feet tall and has yellow, gold, and scarlet-colored blooms.
  • Sunflower (Helianthus sp.)--These radiant giants can be quite versatile. This large family of annuals ranges in size from a towering 12 feet in height to a knee-high 15 inches. They also come in a wide range of colors sporting burgundy-red, creamy white, orange, and yellow flowers that can be as big as a dinner plate or smaller than a saucer. Children have great fun planting sunflowers seeds and watching them grow. The dried blooms become instant bird feeders, attracting hungry birds to feast on the flowers' seedheads. Popular selections include 'Mammoth Russian,' 9 to 10 feet tall with yellow flowers; 'Chianti,' 4 to 5 feet tall with red blooms; and 'Vanilla Ice,' 5 to 6 feet tall with pale yellow flowers.
  • Tithonia or Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia)--This is one of the most heat- and drought-tolerant annuals. Tithonia produces blooms that are brilliant yellow and vibrant reddish-orange. 'Torch' is a selection that grows 4 to 6 feet tall and works well on the back side of borders. 'Sundance' and 'Goldfinch' grow to about 3 feet tall. 'Fiesta del Sol' reaches 2 to 3 feet tall and grows full and bushy. Its brilliant 2- to 3-inch, velvety–orange blooms attract butterflies as well as hummingbirds to the garden.
  • Zinnia (Zinnia elegans)--These old-fashioned plants are unpretentious yet unforgettable. They come in a wide array of vibrant colors ranging from chartreuse, lavender, and orange to pink, red, white, and yellow. There is even a candy-cane mix. These colorful petals are striped or flecked white. The cactus-type zinnias have interesting quilled petals. 

Zinnias are the ultimate cut flower because the more you cut, the more they bloom. 'California Giants' is a tall selection that grows 3 feet tall or more and is perfect for big arrangements. Cut and Come Again Hybrid is another long-stemmed choice, growing 24 inches tall. Lilliput Mix grows 18 inches tall, has pom-pom blooms, and is great for cutting. Thumbelina Hybrid is a tiny zinnia that grows only 6 inches tall. Whether you like them big or small, there's a zinnia for you.

"Sowing Success" is from the Southern Living 2004 issue of the Spring Garden Guide.